Originally posted May 3, 2019

It seems that roughly every decade, we reach a new frontier in human-technology interaction. In the 1970s, we communicated with computers via character mode, typing complex commands onto a green screen. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were a major step forward, making it vastly easier for non-computer scientists to use computers. Next, the mobile form factor required us to simplify interfaces and use new technologies such as cloud computing and geolocation to reduce the amount of navigation and clicks required to perform a given task. Now we are at the beginning of a new way of interacting with computers: Voice user interfaces, or VUIs, enabling man-machine interactions using natural language, to accomplish ever more sophisticated tasks orchestrated by Smart Assistants.

With each leap forward, we’ve used increasingly sophisticated technology behind the scenes to remove friction for users and enable simpler, more intuitive interactions. That in turn has driven changes in user behavior and expectations, especially in the world of commerce.1 When you can stand at your kitchen counter and ask Alexa to buy more paper towels the minute you put the last roll on the holder it sets a new standard for convenience.

This is a major inflection point, not a passing fad. We are now entering the third era of commerce, and CIOs need to help their companies prepare to meet these new expectations. We can scarcely remember it now, but there was a time when some pronounced the internet a passing fad, and smart phones a gadgets that couldn’t even serve as phones. Each time, early adopters saw the technology opportunity, prepared for it, and came out a step ahead. Those who felt there was no reason to invest “right now” were left scrambling to catch up.

Consumers are buying VUI-enabled devices at a rapid pace. Tens of millions of Alexa enabled devices have now sold in recent years. All the major automakers are building VUIs into new cars. Watches, TVs, thermostats and a wide range of household appliances are being connected to Smart Assistants. 

So, it’s not too early to invest. Remember that no one was comfortable doing banking on mobile phone 10 years ago, but today close to half of US adults use smartphones for banking.  Smart Assistants are on a similar adoption curve. Just as smartphone usage exploded with the app store, voice will explode as more and more skills become available. Already there are tens of thousands of Alexa skills. Natural Language will be at the forefront of the truly connected commerce experience. 

Here are three trends all companies need to consider as they look toward the future:

Ambient computing

Ambient, or ubiquitous, computing supports a vision of interactivity that is not tied to a particular device. Voice is the prime entry point, liberating consumers from tasks such as unlocking the device, opening an app or typing in passwords and urls. It’s already possible to simply ask Alexa not only how to reorder your preferred product, but to do things such as play your favorite song or newscast, or set an alarm or timer. 

For example, if you use Amazon Pay to buy yarn at a local knitting shop, that transaction history is available in your account. Soon, if you’re home knitting and realize you are going to need more yarn to complete the project, you will simply ask Alexa to reorder the same yarn and ship it to you. You won’t even need to put down your knitting needles.

Voice commerce will have truly arrived when it has eliminated our reliance upon specific channels. Digital services will be pervasive and accessible everywhere. Companies need to think about how they can enable these kinds of experiences.

Engagement in the moment

The beauty of VUIs tied to ambient computing is that they allow people to take action in the moment, the instant it occurs to them.  Whether it’s adding lemons to the weekly shopping list or making donation to support those impacted by a natural disaster as you watch the news. It’s not a replacement for mobile or the web. It’s a net new way of engaging.

When using devices that are voice first, you don’t have visuals to refer to like you do when using a laptop or mobile phone. Information has to be presented conversationally. Script writing takes the place of navigational design; clarifying questions take the place of menus. Rather than guiding users through a series of prompts and form fills, VUIs have to be responsive to a wide range of intents and efficiently guide customers to a mutually desirable outcome.

Consider how your offering might lend itself to engagement in different contexts. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a commercial transaction. For example, Tide has built a skill that lets you ask Alexa how to remove a stain. Alexa will ask you what kind of stain and based on your answer provide the appropriate instructions, which are also sent to the Alexa app should you need to read them. 

Simple UX, sophisticated AI

Unlike using a browser, an app, or a device, the learning curve for a customer with a VUI is very fast. It’s a conversational back and forth that brings us back to the simple days of asking your neighborhood retailer for the product or asking a friend for help with a task. 

The most natural voice interactions require the most sophisticated AI and machine learning. That elevates the importance of good, clean data and tech know how. Decades worth of data from shoppers and powerful cloud computing are at the core of our innovations in Natural Language Understanding, and we are actively working with companies of every size in every industry to help them leverage their data and our technology expertise. As Smart Assistant adoption grows, the amount of data the machines can learn from will fuel voice experiences that are ever more intuitive, useful, and delightful.   

Voice is already fundamentally improving the way people interact with technology, redefining the way people research and purchase, and changing user expectations yet again. It’s a disruption, yes, but it is filled with new opportunities. 

To capitalize on that opportunity, companies need to start learning, testing and building for tomorrow, today. CIOs have an important role to play in educating and guiding their businesses during this pivotal time, identifying the right solution to connect with an audience independent of devices, and building the teams and methods to create delightful experiences. 

Connect with us at pay.amazon.com/alexa if you are interested to know more.

1Source: eMarketer, April 2018 Forecast: in 2019 46.3% of US 18+ years old will use smart phones for banking (up from 44.1% in 2018)

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